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Photo: David Llada
Dorsa Derakhshani could read before the age of 2 and grew up to be a chess champion. She was banned from Iran’s chess association for not wearing a headscarf.

After you read this article on an Iranian chess prodigy, you are sure to be surprised by her current career goal. Not that there’s anything wrong with it; it’s just surprising.

Mika Klein interviewed Dorsa Derakhshani at WBUR radio’s Only a Game, first watching an old video of Dorsa to get some background.

“The year was 2000. Dorsa was 2, and appearing on a children’s television show. Dorsa wears a red velvet dress with puffy sleeves and dark tights. She’s tightly clutching a stuffed puppy, so the interviewer holds the microphone for her. Dorsa breaks into song, with the poise of seasoned performer, and the studio audience applauds.

“The camera cuts to the audience. Most of the girls are sitting in the back, many are wearing headscarves. Dorsa’s head is uncovered.

“Dorsa was born in Tehran in 1998. And this is just one of many times she appeared on Iranian TV. This time, she reads a story from a children’s book. …

” ‘Are you saying you could read at the age of 2?’

“ ‘No,’ Dorsa says. ‘I could read when I was 1 1/2. But I finished first grade when I was 2.’

“Dorsa’s television career as a child prodigy was never going to last forever, but it ended abruptly when she was 6.

“ ‘They made me wear a scarf against my will,’ says Dorsa … ‘I never went back for the TV.

“ ‘I finished fourth grade when I was 4 1/2. Math, science, everything. … My parents tried to fill my time with other things like music, swimming, ballet, gymnastics, painting.”

“Right next door to her painting class was a chess class. Dorsa decided to join. …

” ‘Chess was really different, because you are actually playing with a live human being,” Dorsa says. … ‘You can’t be 100 percent ready and sure that you play good when you go to a tournament.’

“Dorsa’s first big success came in the Iranian national youth under-8 tournament.

“ ‘It was a big surprise for everyone, because there were players who already had private coaches and they came to win,’ Dorsa says. ‘I came out of nowhere, and I won the tournament. I remember that everybody else was wearing a scarf, even under 8. But I wore a princess dress and a tiara. And it was really cute. …

“Dorsa went on to win three straight gold medals at the 2012, 2013 and 2014 Asian Junior Championships. In the numerical chess ratings lists, Dorsa was at the top for all girls in Asia. …

“I first met Dorsa at the Chess Olympiad in September 2016. She was attending as a journalist, not a player. The tournament was in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, a country that is 98 percent Muslim. She did not wear a headscarf at the tournament or on the street. I’ve never seen her wear one.”

Klein continues with a story of the time when Dorsa was traveling and saw that her Instagram account was going crazy. She went to bed and forgot about it. In the morning friends explained that ” ‘they saw on newspaper that my federation banned me — my brother and I, actually, both of us. It was just very out of the blue.’ ”

Dorsa’s brother, Borna, was banned for competing against someone from Israel, Dorsa for not wearing a headscarf.

“She believes the action against her and her brother was a tactic to divert from other news. The announcement came in the middle of the Women’s World Chess Championship, which was being held in Tehran. Several notable players, including the reigning U.S. women’s champion, boycotted the event because players were required to wear a headscarf. All three Iranian women competing had just been eliminated in the opening round. …

“This July, she moved to the U.S. after being accepted to the chess team at St. Louis University. She said there were no problems when she landed in New York and cleared immigration.

” ‘I’m hoping to become a dentist,’ Dorsa says. ‘I’m looking forward to finally having a stable trainer and a team, and I really wish to become grandmaster.’ ”

More at WBUR, here.

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